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Tag Archives: Levi Bryant

The/An Importance of Metaphysics

The Science Fiction of Philosophy

This conversation over at Dead Voles has been winding, snake-back, but in this bend in the road some interesting things were being discussed.

Carl gives his rendition of what he believes my position on the importance of philosophical argument, something with which I agree in part. Carl’s general sense is that philosophy (or perhaps metaphysics) isn’t really of any historical importance, both in terms of social justice, but also simply in terms of historical causation:

Carl: “If I understand correctly, Kevin agrees with this as a description of how philosophy usually works, but has a more activist commitment to the potential of philosophy to break the materialist circle and become a guide to better living. If he’s right that philosophical activism can actually have an effect on the world, and not just be an effect of the world, the stakes in philosophizing get very high, conflict is warranted (even mandatory) and withdrawal is not an option. Therefore I would expect Kevin to think that an unwillingness to fight over philosophy is in effect a cover for conservatism; so he would in principle reject the separation of affect and commitment I have made.”

Kvond: I’ve never heard my position towards philosophy summarized by another so this is interesting.

First of all I am equally, if not more passionate about art (plastic, film, poetry, fiction, etc), I just happen to blog about philosophy because this is what feeds my artistic process. And yes, to take of your thought, what we paint, film and narrate indeed expresses our historical, material, economic circumstances, but it does not ONLY do so like a dumb image floating in a mirror, it ALSO helps determine them. So everything that is at stake in philosophy is also at stake in the arts. It is only that the mode of criticism of both is different. The need for criticism of each is acute. (Part of the problem I have tried to put forth in regards to Graham Harman under the question of his Orientalism is the way in which he evades criticism of both. When criticized as philosophy, is merely being poetic, when criticized as poet, is being a philosopher, in the end taking refuge merely as a non-author.) I do also believe that the arts can be critiqued through a mode of truth, and philosophies as modes of the social, but these are not their primary traction points in the world, the force they exert.

As of the secondary question of conservatism I am not so high on this, as if buried conservatism is an inherent and ever lurking evil. I think that conservativism plays its own social role in the world, it is meant to conserve (perhaps Deleuze would say re-territorialize) aspects or relations in the face of radical change or dissonance. I am concerned about conservativism in two areas though. For one, I find the the Neoliberal (and really Fascist) elements in Levi Bryant’s Latourian objectology to be a vast case of political hypocrisy, and when someone bandies about the big rhetorical guns, blasting them this way and that, as he does, one better have one’s ps and qs straight in the positions you advocate. I find Levi’s metaphysics indeed to be Neoliberalesque, and his behavior as a person (for instance his call for uncloaking blogger identities, among many others) Fascist. When in the arena of political ideals, most important is that we don’t drag with us the very thing we are claiming to oppose. This leads to the secondary sense in which I find conservatism worth tracking. That is, because it is a social force, and has a social role, it is best if we identify it wherein it lies, so we can take it’s import into account, and look to just what it is that we are opposing. I made this point with Harman’s Orientialism as well. It is not that Orientalism is inherently “bad”, but that it contains dangers, possible negative side-effects which have a greater opportunity to manifest themselves when we are less conscious of what is going on, what is being expressed.

Perhaps this answer of mine clears up why I have bothered to tarry over Harman’s theory of causation in particular and his metaphysics in general. In the next line of our exchange I try to point out to Carl why the difference between Science Fiction and Science (by analogy) is important to philosophy’s own power to contribute to the discovery (or invention) of the world:

Carl once wrote: “…even in this ghetto philosophy has spun off useful new disciplines like Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science and so on that do much of the work philosophers used to do.”

Carl writes: “I actually agree with this ethic of getting it right and knowing where you stand, and I think it’s therefore of value to read closely and criticize when it’s warranted. I just don’t think philosophy, in particular metaphysics, is an area where there’s any useful standard of getting it right. It’s all science fiction.”

Kvond: This is the thing. I know you would like to treat philosophy as the latter, but the reason why philosophy WAS able and is STILL able to make these “spin-off” contributions to the social sciences is precisely because it recognizes the difference (within itself) between (Science Fiction) Pulp-Philosophy, and (Science) Philosophy. The internal coherence driven by the latter (and not the former) is what gave the force to descriptive systems that then power the descriptions of (some) social sciences. There is no EXTERNAL standard in the sense of a one-to-one correspondence, but indeed there is the standard of internal coherence amid systematic descriptions of the world which forces rigor within a theory that attempts to describe the world as it REALLY is. And it is this rigor that is missing from the Science Fiction aspects of philosophy.

This is one of the good things that blogs can do, just alert people to things being discussed, so that others may take the discussion in other directions or elsewhere. The arguments have the disadvantage of being rough-edged, but the advantage of being living cultures.

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Bryant’s Ring of Gyges: The Social Restraints of Blogging

I dislike these kinds of posts because its more interesting to be talking about this philosopher or that, this line of reasoning or that, but sometimes the content of philosophy comes together with questions of finite community and ultimately of ethics in general. In fact occasions of our own interactions become the best examples or illustrations of why we believe that the ideas we hold are important to the world at large. It is the question of “local ethics”, how Big Ideas and boring everyday stuff touch.

On the Street

I was strolling down my electronic neighborhood today – I usually walk through my blogroll, and then once in a while I then go over to Splintering Bone Ashes who has a nice distribution of blogs and the titles of recent posts outside my usual sphere (SBA never really posts but I like him when he does). So I’m strolling along, down streets I don’t always follow and I run into this bit of rude graffiti chalked on a public wall (I say rude because this posting was vaguely directed towards some anonymous and generalized many, but also with targeted persons in mind, and for those likely walk down that particular electronic street, not unlike other graffiti in the “real” world):

Notes From the Chalk-Breaker

The immediate source for the prejudicial hilarity is Levi Bryant’s site Larval Subjects a post entitled: “Important Theory of Social Relations in New Media”. It has an original source (which a commenter provided), but Bryant initially left it unreferenced as he no doubt wanted it to express his own feelings about the internet contributions of those who don’t write under their “normal” name, a pre-occupation of his and others of circle. Although Bryant once was one of these anonymous types who actually vigorously attempted to conceal his identity (or so I am told, and he admits), he regularly has attacked pseudonymous bloggsters as inauthentic, and in many instances morally suspect. Since coming out of the virtual closet, he has been in the fore-front of uncloaking otherwise cloaked ones. We really must read the meaning of the chalkboard comic as his own intent.

“Larval Subjects”, the name under which he once wrote, seems to feel that if human beings are not restrained by the social consequences of their normal “name”, they will produce what is worst in them. It it not just the Ring of Gyges, but a Ring of Gyges combined with an audience that draws out of human subjectivity what is pejoratively called “total fuckwad” (or those, as Levi Bryant has also grouped: Grey Vampire, the Troll, and inconcordantly as well, the homophobe, the nationalist, the Nazi, the KKK member). We are to imagine that the difference between Fuckwad and the Normal person is simply the combination of anonymity and audience which turns the latter into the former. Leaving Plato’s assumption aside, I have to say that this is a curious, in fact sad view of the world, especially for those who spend a lot of time discussing things on the internet. And it has some rather simple-minded conceptions of what “normal” is and how it operates.

First of all every interaction contains degrees of “normal” nameness, and anonymity. Which is to say the human being has potentialities of in/coherent expression far beyond the name they are under. And the “norm” within the term “normal” is not always something to esteem. And whether “Larval Subjects” posted this comic, or “Levi Bryant” did is a question of community. Most of us don’t really care who “Levi Bryant” is, but we do care (or HAVE cared) who “Larval Subjects” is. The “name” that circulates and falls under community standard consequences is equal to that sphere. For those that wish to give up their nom de plume and attach the products of their writings, including all those interactions to OTHER spheres of normalization are not those who are better persons. They are working on the powers of simply a singular identify.

I refuse both notions that:

1. The only reason why we behave civilly or even altrustically is because we are restrained from doing what we really would like to do.

2. Our “normal” name includes the very best of what we have to offer others.

Autonymy and Anonymous

In fact for those that have experienced writing pseudonymously, there is a definite benefit from this anto-nymy. One simply is able to explore new relations under the context of a new community which do not have much to do with the other communities that can define you (and in defining you, cause you to see yourself in a constricted sense). This is to say, the auto-nym is not so much a freedom from the behavioral restraints of others, as the possibility to redefine oneself in new contexts, under specific projects or trajectories. To discover oneself, so to speak, something beyond the dominant identity that sometimes conflates the “ego” with the proper name. In fact it is quite the case that the virtual intersubjectivity afforded by autonymy is necessarily trans-subjective, pulling at the boundaries of the otherwise regards as whole “self”, opening up possibilities that are entirely creative.

It is important to see that what is loosely regarded as anonymous, when in the context of a regular and interactive (shared) expression is a case of autonymy. And that the “auto” though it expresses the way that one names oneself, the power and authenticity is earned amid a community…it is an autonomy of the name itself, the pseudonym belongs to everyone, and not just you. You are not the locus of its laws. My name here is “kvond” or sometimes “Frames /sing”. I do not own this name. I am made from it, in part, thrown in its direction. It becomes a center of gravity, both for myself but also others.

I had the coincidental experience of name-experiment once that is worth mentioning.  I was a younger man and had romantically dreamed of traveling to and eventually livng in Florence. I saved up a bunch of cash, flew across the Atlantic and headed out blindly to the mesmerizing city. I found a little pensione and resolved to find a job, start a little life there, despite the fact I spoke no Italian (ha). I moved into my pensione where I was to stay for the next month or so and upon registering me the owner read my passport incorrectly. My name is very long and takes up two lines, and she identified a nice Italian sounding middle name as my Christian name, my proper name. She pronounced it, I hesitated, and then I went with it. For my time there, exploring this aspect of myself, this small vector, this line of flight, I was (insert name). It should not make a difference, but it did. Everything I experienced and expressed came out of this new center of circulation, in its orbit. What I was there was not false. It was from a node on a rhizome.

For me the cocooning nature of an experiment of self under name does not generate “Fuckwad” or anything like it (though certainly people can find the me unpleasant at times). When someone is rude to me in text under a specific name I never think to myself “Ah, I wish I had that guy’s REAL name!”  It is much more the case that autonymy propels one forward into interesting spaces. And I think it cool that in those spaces some people are under their “real” names (normal) and some are not. Some people want to say, “Hey! This is me, pay attention to what I really am, and this is what I think.” and other people are like “Hey, forget about who you “really” are, and who I “really” am, and think about this interesting thought”. Try on “this”.

What is extra curious about Levi Bryant’s Normal = Good/ Anonymous = Bad is that it is quite Fascistic in conception. (Levi writes at length how pervasive the so called Neoliberal system of singular subjectivity is, something he equates with Nazism (sigh).) Which is to say the way that illicit behavior is to be controlled is through public exposure under a single register. If we want to control the behavior of others we need to expose them to a panoptical “eye”, an eye that takes its main measurement upon the Name. As a matter of policy, opening up what is otherwise “private” (be it a bedroom, or personal friends, an email) is key to normalizing these aberrations. If one wants to stomp out homosexuality or Communism, let’s say, one exposes what is in the closet, and then attaches it to a “Name” to be regulated. One brings to bear the armature of the Law upon the Name, and does so in a direction tending towards universalization. It’s an interesting theory, but one must acknowledge to where it points.

I side in another direction. I prefer to esteem the long history of pseudonymous writings, and I esteem the virtual world’s new potentiality for micro-climates of interpersonal subjectivity. Here names create vectors for growth and discovery. Yes, in the cloisters of experiment surely there are possibilities for abuse. With freedom from what in Rap is called your “government name” can indeed come a boldness that slips into what is base or simple-minded. This is the risk of freedom itself. It involves the possibility of a regression. But I do not think that autonymy essentially involves regressive expression, nor do I even think that human beings are those that need to be essentially restrained from what is worst. Indeed, the abuse of one’s name, the exercise of its earned and somewhat deceptive power, has as many crimes as the autonymous. The “name” contains no more good than bad.

I sense as well that those who argue that the Ring of Gyges is revelatory of essential human nature are those under a kind of self-confession. They personally struggle with their own anonymity, are uncomfortable with it, and dream that one day their “name”, their real name (that signifier) will hold as much power as the anonymity they both fear and lust after.

INDIRECTIONS offers a harmonizing response to the above, bringing out what I hoped was best in what “kvond” was saying about the auto-nym.

For related but different thoughts on the twists of subjectivity and the subversion of Name, consider a prospective Antigone Complex: What is the “Antigone Complex”? Posthuman Tensored Agency, and More on the Antigone Complex

Humanities and Ponzi: Just What Secures the Investment of Thought

In Search of Bubblemeisters

A few weeks ago, in a way troubling to some, I compared Harman’s parlay of an association with a now-defunct, and as some argued, never existing philosophical Movement (Speculative Realism) into a form of Symbolic or Cultural Capital, a capital in which others now are trading, to a Ponzi Scheme. As I tried to point out, not only did I think that this is generally so, but also Harman’s own Latourian thinking of ontology and networks promoted just this kind of “you are as real as the number of connections you can make” thinking.

Yet it seems that this financial/humanities analogy had already been used in July of this year as Philip Gerrans over at Times Higher Education wrote about the same problem of securing assets in the humanities  in a general sense in Bubble Trouble:

The humanities are in the same state financial markets were in before they crashed. Assessing the growing mountain of toxic intellectual debt, Philip Gerrans considers going short on some overvalued research

The cause of the meltdown in global financial markets is obvious: leveraged trading in financial instruments that bear no relationship to the things they are supposed to be secured against. When creditors finally ask how much bonds secured by collateralised debt obligations backed by billions of dollars of mortgages are actually worth, the answer is “what the buildings can be sold for”. In some cases, nothing. In many cases, the buildings are no more than weed-covered lots or graphics in a developer’s PowerPoint presentation.

The academy, too, is a market – a large one in which the value of any piece of research is ultimately secured against the world. If the world is not as described or predicted in the article or book, the research is worthless. A paper that claims that autism is caused by vaccination or terrorism by poverty is valuable only if it turns out to be a good explanation of autism or terrorism. That is why an original and true explanation is the gold standard of academic markets: the double helix, On the Origin of Species, Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne…

…I worry that there are no similar mechanisms for correction in the humanities – and not because stocks in the humanities are intrinsically worthless. Historians, anthropologists, linguists and even philosophers (on a good day) are able to discover or explain things. But a lot of the market is unsecured and highly leveraged. By this I mean that people in the humanities often do not write about the world or the people in it. Rather, they write about what somebody wrote about what somebody else wrote about what somebody else wrote. This is called erudition (not free association), and scholars sell it to their audience as a valuable insight about the nature of terrorism or globalisation or the influence of the internet (preferably all three). Almost every grant application in the humanities mentions these three topics, but the relationship between them and the names and concepts dropped en route are utterly obscure.

None of this would matter if the market were basically self-correcting like the science market, or erratic but brutally self-correcting like the financial markets. When people do not write directly about the world, it is hard to compare what they say against the world. So the main corrective mechanism in the humanities is reputation built on publication and, since publication is often based on reputation, the danger of a bubble is extreme. Someone who takes a supervisor’s advice to base a career on writing about Slavoj Zizek is in the position of an investor deciding to invest in Bear Stearns on the advice of Lehman Brothers. The price is high and predicted – by those who have a vested interest – to rise further…

Acheron LV-426 links Gerrans’s article and my own on Harman, drawing together the larger institutional question of the service and debt of the humanities with the get-rich-quick schemes of blogged, organized expression. The question of the worth of a philosophical thought is stretched thin between Gerrans’s institutional observations with socio-economic concerns that radiate across the country, and the Acheron bloggery attempt to get a grasp on just what curious things have been happening with so-called Speculative Realism and Harman’s (and Levi’s) scramble to boost the value of their own subsidiary stock. The author writes:

What’s interesting to us is the ongoing ways in which these financial discourses frame the attempts of certain philosophers to account (!) for “the economics of attention” related to their work. I find this particularly interesting insofar as it uses political economy to critique the “object fetishism” of Speculative Realism (scroll down to Bryan K’s comment in the previous link and you’ll get more ideas on where this could go in the future). Harman is apparently someone given to remarking how the “stock” of other philosopher’s is losing value, when as you remarked before, the abstracting of equivalences implied by such comments hides the work of making equivalent.

Anselmo then goes onto criticize Harman’s invocation of Nietzsche which I cannot recall [edit: in the comments section below he corrects my memory with a reference]; it was Levi who made a bizarre appeal to Nietzsche and Grey Vampires, after he had been criticized via Nietzsche by Alexei: What Larval Subjects Loves to Hate. Nietzsche seems to be like raspberry jam, you put it on your bread but once it gets on your fingers it it goes everywhere.

Other than reporting merely on the spread of the meme Graham-Harman-Ponzi-Scheme  (and furthering his carreer through allure as I do so), what I am more interested in is the general question of just what it is that grounds the “stock” of either a philosopher that is dead or attempting to write now, and how that stock relates to Capital itself. It seems that it must have something to do with “authenticity”, a trust in the mark of recognition established through the interest by others, but also an internal ballast to one’s times and the nature of things. What corrects the mark, the various “stamps” of approval? In the case of philosophy is it little more than poetry, as Harman seems at times likely to say? Is it the more nodes one has, the more “right” you are? This is the trouble with the Latourian model of the world. It lacks an explanatory dimension (a problem not eased by Harman’s Occam-defying invention of vaccum-packed objects). It lacks what explanation DOES.

Gerrans in his worry over academic inflation actually touches on the Derridean phenomena (to which some in the Objectology phenomena favorably liken themselves), and even seems to intuit from a distance Harman’s own theory that philosophizing should include shock-value and the great exaggeration:

There is an academic version of the “fool in the market” proverb that says every university has at least one department that is a national laughing stock, and if you don’t know which one that is, you are probably in it. The same is true of humanities superstars and ideologies. Ten years ago, Gayatri Spivak was woman of the moment, but now she is a very hard sell. Everyone is wise after the event, but we need to know who is currently leading the charge into oblivion of the theory-lite brigade. The keywords are pretentious, bombastic, obscurantist, humourless, ideological. Add a complete inability to state or argue for a non-trivial factual thesis and booming popularity among those who created the last bubble, and you have the profile of a bubblemeister.

The “heart” of Neo-Liberalism, blah, blah, blah

While I try to shrug off all this Neo-liberalism this, and Neo-liberalism that, as other blogsters are using fancy acronyms for Neo-liberalism as if they are busy making entries in the Merck manual, this one passage of qualifications and analogies from the Neo-liberal hating Levi Bryant I find interesting (yes, he has equated Neo-liberalism with Nazism recently):

While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology. What is missing in this conception of neo-liberal ideology is the legal and normative framework that underlies this way of relating to the world and others. On the one hand, in order for neo-liberal capitalist ideology to get off the ground it requires what what might be called a “pure subject” or a “subject-without-qualities”, not unlike Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception. At the heart of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (NLCI) is not so much a subject pursuing self-interest, as a legal subject functioning as the substrate of property, commercial obligations and debts, and divorced from social context and conditions of production.

One can see right away from the bolded material that analogies abound. Levi objects to an anthropological view being read as the core of Neo-liberalism, because there is a framework (legal normative) in which (?) a substrate operates (legal subject) onto which various formal economic relations adhere.  What Levi denies, in something beyond a point of emphasis, is that the “heart” or the “core” of Neo-liberalism is the self-interested subject. Instead it is a mere formalism of “subject” and its laws. To put it briefly, it’s not the self-seeking, self-interested desiring-subject, it’s the structured-subject (legally and philosophically) that is the troublesome kernel of Neo-liberalism. Let’s leave aside the kind of rhetorical slippage between philosophical “subject” and legal “subject” here, is it really correct to say that THIS is the core/heart of Neoliberalism (whatever that is)?

From my perspective the attempt to minimize the anthropological myth, the idea that human beings are essentially and naturally selfish beings, and instead draw a different heart/core made of some kind of structuralization, misses something. The entire legal and normative framework, we would say, came into existence and into justification in the very strong context of the belief that human beings are self-interested beings, essentially. The entire formalized drive towards privatization is made in response to this picture of humanity, it is naturalized within it. While I’m not sure who is saying that Neo-liberalism is nothing but this myth – David Graeber does make a vivid anthropological argument that “even” exchange is something that is done between enemies, suggesting that economic models of abstract equivalencies are necessarily mythologically self-interested ones – I am also unsure how much of the “framework” and its formalized subject could operate without it. In fact, as Spinoza knew just at the cusp of the Cartesian subject, one cannot cut off the conception of the cogito from the idea of its separate faculties of Willing and Judgment. In order undo the abstract subject, willing and freedom have to be radicalized. The desiring subject, how it desires, and what it desires for is integral to the very isolation of the said “substrate” of the subject in the first place. In fact, all of this stems to a great degree from Representational conceptions of knowledge and related questions of autonomy, freedom and desire.

I don’t really know what good finding the heart or the core of Neoliberalism does, other than create a kind of rhetorical force to steady the aim of our critique. But I do doubt that our narratives about how humans naturally (or if one is in Lacanian moods, structurally) desire are not every bit as important as the laws and norms that are created to regulate and shape those desires. I personally find the Neo-liberalism stigma mark to be something of a canard, designed by those that think “radical break”, getting “outside”, is the only way towards justice, but in any case, philosophies of “lack” (including much of what flows from Hegel, and those that hunger after essentialized “nothingness” or “absence” or “object”) have a great deal to do with foreclosing the possibilities of thinking about the “subject”, or better, the self beyond its normative product-buying, object-chasing behavior. One  also has to ask, as we pre-occupy ourselves with “objects” as essential and constitutive relations, are we not already caught up in economies (of desire, of real capital) which presuppose the “lack” which drives them, sinking deeper into our mental concrete the assumptions which secure the relations we would wish to change or improve upon.

Levi Apparently Has Never Read Harman’s Theory of Causation

Who Is Taking Harman’s Theory Seriously?

Levi writes in defense of Harman’s so-called Theory of Vicarious  Causation, after summoning the authority of the Principle of Charity a principle by whose force he tells me that I must assume that Harman actually knows what he is talking about when he proposes a brand new theory of causation. First my description, then his rejection of it:

Do you read as coherent that when a baseball hurls into a windshield it must FIRST send a representation of itself INTO the glass, and then it must brush this “vicar” into a state of phenomenenal breakdown, a breakdown which THEN results in the baseball cracking the glass? Does this make any sense to you? Aside from projecting a human caricature of experience and cognition, in what way does this actually seem to reveal how objects interact without human beings? (which I wrote at anotherheideggerblog)

 Levi’s dismissal:

The characterization of Harman’s position above is clearly absurd. Harman’s thesis is not that objects must first encounter other objects under the form of a “sensuous vicar” and then relate to them. Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.

This is how Levi characterizes the Principle of Charity, something he feels that I have violated:

Rather, the principle of charity is a necessary condition for philosophical discourse, requiring that we present the positions of other thinkers in the most reasonable and plausible light before proceeding to criticism of that position. Working on the premise that our interlocutor is a reasonable and intelligent person that genuinely wants to get at the truth, explain features of the world, and understand things– a premise that should be granted at the beginning of dialogue and revoked only when proven otherwise –we should ask ourselves, with respect to our interpretations of the positions of others, “is this a position that a reasonable person would endorse or advocate? If our impression of another’s position is that it is batshit crazy insane, then it is likely we have misinterpreted the other person’s position, not that the author is making the absurd claim.”

Kettle Black

Obviously Levi did not follow my string of posts on Harman’s Theory of Causation when I originally posted them many months ago (and linked at the bottom), posts which were more than generous in terms of Charity. I sincerely wished to extract and find agreement with every possible coherence I could find, as one would see if you actually read my exegetic struggles with the said theory. Indeed when I found I could not make full sense of it I blamed myself, as Levi suggests, and this lead me to create diagrams of all the objects and their supposed interactions, and when the theory didn’t make sense even then, I even checked with Harman (with whom I was on good terms with at the time), to make sure that I got all the working parts right. And affirmed that I did. No one that I know of has gone this far in trying to local the sense of his theory. The Charity was immense and willingly given. [It seems though that Levi in making his  assessment of my explication and my criticism has not even bothered to read my posts on the theory, but has simply Uncharitably attributed them to an intitial uncharitable disposition on my part. This is quite common for Levi as he regularly reads his critics in the worst possible light, his rhetoric often rising to literally atrocious levels.]

Harman sans Phenomenology?

But more than this, in his defense of Harman’s Theory of Causation and its supposed non-anthropomorphic nature, Levi does not select a quote from Harman’s theory (the essay which he seems not to have actually read or read closely), nor even from Harman himself, but from Michael over at Complete Lies who presents an ENTIRELY non-phenomenological reading of Harman’s theory.

As Michael writes over at PE, confessing the expermental nature of his take on Harman’s causation:

“This is the gamble I’m making. It may fail, but I’m considering it an experiment in understanding. I want to see if OOP could be presented and understood with no post-Kantian material. This would obviously change things, but I am hoping it will lead to new understandings and clarifications.”

Harman’s theory is whole-hog a phenomenological theory (hello?). In fact the problematic anthropomorphism RESIDES in the phenomenology and the core assumption that Husserl’s Cartesian sensuous objects are explanatory of what non-human causation is. Take out the phenomenology and you go a long way towards taking out the anthropomorphism…you also go a long way toward destroying Harman’s theory altogether. Michael of course admits that by taking out the phenomenology he has performed a great gamble as I cited, but it is absolutely silly to appeal to Michael attempted rescue of Harman’s theory from its phenomenology to explain what precisely Harman himself is claiming. It has removed a core component of the point that Harman is trying to get across, and it is this core component (and how it is said to interact with other elements) which I have described far above with baseballs and windshields. It should be obvious that I am under no obligation to explain how Harman’s own theory might be readable without reference to any post-Kantian material when in fact Harman’s ENTIRE theory is about how post-Kantian Husserl and Heidegger objects are necessary to understand causation in the first place. Michael makes no reference to Harman’s theory of causation essay in his experiment (cool as it is), and the reason for this is that it wants nothing to do with phenomenology or Husserl. Levi’s turn toward a no-post-Kantian explanation of what Harman is claiming in unreserved and exclusively post-Kantian terms is beyond ludicrous, and shows the least respect for Harman’s theory one can imagine, a refusal to take it seriously on its own terms.

It seems I have been unfair in criticizing Levi recently for remaining silent on the incoherence of Harman’s theory of causation because in fact it seems that Levi has NOT actually read it  but only about it (as is evident by his inability to reference the essay in any way shape or form in support of what he thinks it claims, nor recognize those claims when made explicit).  Here is the essay.

As to my uncharitable assessment of the essay’s depiction, my reading is fair and reflects what Harman has asserted in his essay. Levi seems to have greatest trouble with the successive nature of the interactions between real objects as mediated by their sensuous vicars. It is that he thinks Harman is just concerned with selectivity and not the actual relations of which selectivity is made. But this is EXACTLY as Harman describes it, emphasizing this temporal quality of the imagined relations, in fact he speaks in terms of lag and interaction:

“We must discover how real objects poke through into the phenomenal realm, the only place where one relates to another. The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensuous plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.”

*cited from the essay none of the supporters of the essay seem to want to cite.

And again,

“There is a constant meeting of assymetrical partners on the interior of some unified object: a real one meeting the senuous vicar or deputy of another. Causation occurs when these obstacles are some how broken or suspended. In seventeenth century terms, the side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intension and another real object lying outside it. In this way shaves or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remained quarantined in private vacuums.”

So, when Levi makes his Charitable appeal to Michael’s non-Phenomenological interpretation of Harman’s Phenomenological acount of causation…

Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.

This denuded attempt to save Harman’s theory misses the entire failing of the theory itself, its proposed explanation of just what that SELECTIVITY consists of, ie how causation occurs. Where is Levi’s grasp of the nature of the “distant signal” Harman says is sent out from the vacuum-packed “real” object? Where is Levi’s awareness of processes of corrosion that are said necessarily to occur at the level of the “sensuous plane”? Where is the conceptual nature of what a “vicar” is (a vicar is a Representation, hello? Harman also uses the term “deputy”) appreciated or even acknowledged? Can it be the case that the only way to be charitable to Harman’s causation one has to strip it of ALL phenomenological and Husserlian object basis? This is not charity, this is plain old mis-reading, or as I suspect, non-reading. It seems that as Levi appeal to Michael’s version of the essay and not the essay itself, it is quite likely that he has not read the essay he defends, just as he had not read the evolution of my treatment of it. Instead we have in the usual Levi Bryant sense, a wild invocation of a “principle” (he just loves these principles) without understanding either the contexts he is applying them to, or really the principle itself.

Charity and Credit Deferred

To take up the Principle of Charity I go to Donald Davidson’s most famous positioning of it, which argues that the only reason why we can make ANY sense of anyone is through the initial and primary assumption that they are saying, doing, intending, is rational. This is foundational to cognitive, intersubjective relatability. And this we gladly presume, as I am Davidsonian. And one can see of course this is also something to be extended to theories proposed. We have to assume an initial optimality of coherence to as to see what is being attempted, how it all SHOULD work together. But this is not an infinite credit. The reason why one is charitable in this way is so that when testing the coherence of a theory it is against the backdrop of this intial coherence that we come to understand its failings. You try to make it work, and you try to make it work so that when it eventually fails you can say to yourself, “hey, this stuff is non-sense or in need of a radical overhaul”, or hopefully “With a little tweak here it functions smoothly”). 

Now it seems that Levi wasn’t even charitable enough to actually read Harman’s theory, or if he read it he read it so shallowly he didn’t even pay attention to what it was claiming. Instead he distanced himself from it, and did not challenge its merit as an honest friend might do. He doesn’t seem to be familiar with it at al, in factl. Instead he has appealed to an non-Phenomenological secondary treatment of it to attempt a summary which actually dismisses almost the whole of Harman’s claim about the nature of causation, intensional objects, Husserl, the whole ball of wax.  I would certainly agree with Levi that what Harman is trying to do is something of the bedimmed “selectivity” of objects, so to speak, but Harman is trying to stake out the actual mechanism, the means of connectives in selection and interaction upon a very specific armature of relations; primary among these is the Phenomenological intension of objects, and in the case of “vicars” a representationalist conception of interaction. The processes of real objects sending signals to their vicars in other objects, and these vicars being “poked” or “poked through” or “corroding” makes up the actual mechanism of causation that he provides however vaguely. To miss this is simply to abuse his theory altogether, to pretend that it is not what it is. Try not to explain away or simply IGNORE what Harman is trying hard to assert and describe.

Harman is rather explicit in his essay about this, and only a very lazy reading of his essay would miss it. It is the connection between elements that is vital:

“What remains to be seen is how these elements interact, how one type of relation transforms into another, how new real objects paradoxically arise from the interaction between real objects and sensual ones, and even how sensual objects manage to couple and uncouple like spectral rail cars. These sort of problems are the subject matter of object-oriented philsophy: the inevitable mutant offspring of Husserl’s intentional objects and Heidegger’s real ones.”

Levi has it all wrong when he thinks he has encapsulated Harman’s theory of causation: “The point is that there is always more possibilities open to any object than those actualized in any particular relation the object enters into.” This is not the point of his theory at all, only the presumption that drives the necessity of a theory of causation in the first place. The burden is in stating how and why THIS particular relation has been actualized, and not THAT or another relation has been actualized. His entire essay is an argument (and hopefully not just a fantasy) of “how these elements interact” and it is for that reason that the exact nature of their interaction so claimed comes under criticism. Only by vacating Harman’s theory of causation of all content, as Levi does, removing from it any claim for how the elements interact, any reference to the central role of representational phenomenology, do you end up with Levi’s very compassionate but empty reading. It would be really nice if those that claim to be charitable readers of Harman’s theory actually concern themselves with the stated aims of the piece rather than coming up inventive ways of avoiding its explicit content.

I would add that I praise Harman for attempting his theory of causation, precisely in the terms that he attempted it. It was a bold try. The reason one cannot simply ignore what Harman tries, the exact depiction of how causation occurs in particular to the assumption of a Phenomenological core (which Michael at Complete Lies does away with), is that Harman knows that if his four fold is actually to be shown as coherent, it is precisely this kind of theory, THIS theory (or one very similar) that has to take hold. It was just for this reason why Harman attempted it, and is continuing to work on it (as it is merely absurd or tremendously failing as it is). The reason why Levi’s failure to read the essay with any precision constitutes an abuse (as does Michael’s non-Phenomenological reading) is that Harman’s theory of causation is the joint-work of his entire metaphysics. And it is just for this reason that this theory in all of its anthropomorphic splendor, projecting Husserl’s objects and actions into every object in the world, displays the incoherence (or one might say fantasy nature) of his metaphysics. Harman needs his theory of causation to save his Speculation.

A short word about Charity and the extent of it. Levi in the past has accused me of not extending the Principle of Charity to his own wildly swinging theories as if the work of the explanation actually falls upon me, the reader. This is nonsense. Initially one assumes that someone knows what they are talking about, but as one encounters incoherences or rhetorical tendencies at deception (as one does with Levi), critical questions increase, rather than go down. When the car seems to be running fine, you get in and ride in it. When it starts to make a knocking sound, and then wobble a bit when steering, you get out. You presume the car can be fixed, and you try to fix it, but one is under no obligation to presume either that it MUST be fixable, or worse, that it isn’t even in need for repair.

This is the problem with some of the Speculation versions of philosophy operating at the upper end of the internet (because I don’t want to speak of the weightier writers of the now defunct Speculative Realism). Some seem to imagine that the Principle of Charity somehow works as a fill-in for the connective parts of a theory, that the theory itself MUST make sense, all the while remaining in the shadows of mere “speculation” (hey, don’t criticize it, I’m still working on it!). This goes right to the point I made about Speculative Realism and financial Speculative Bubbles which has caused something of a stir. Indeed in financial trading there are principles of Charity which ground and even drive the investment in different products. But one does not wisely invest in ANY financial product, or even accept any form of promisory note, just because one has to be generous. The economy of exchange is founded on the possibility of testing the merit of representational claims, and philosophy is no different. The problem I have had with some versions of Speculative Realism has to do with the difference between “This is a cool idea for a car!” and “This is a car.” The one you speculate, test, think about, maybe model and one day build, the second one you don’t get into unless it shows itself to do what it claims to do. I’m not against the first kind at all, in fact my entire blog (and many of the lower tier Speculativists’ as well) are exactly of this nature: This is a cool idea for a car! But it seems that some want to do the philosophical thing and make the further claim, and in Levi’s case, basically bluff your way into This is a car! with all kinds of references to Priniciples and fallacies, name-droppings, borrowings and science references. Fair enough, if you want to play philosopher, go ahead, but when checking under the hood before revealed a bunch of disconnected wires and old car parts and lots of very gruff “Hey, what do you think you doing in there!” most would pass on checking any further. But in either case,  criticism as to what is being claimed (fantasy car, or real car) is just what is needed to make what we have created better, so it works.

I would say that my criticism of Harman’s causation was the most charitable thing I could have done. And recent pressure I have put on the allies of Harman to actually engage it has done more good for the essay and what it was attempting to do than a thousand tepid avoidances or radical reinterpretations. At least Harman has a chance to renew the incoherence and see if he can rescue it, to speak of “distant signals” and “corrosive sensuous film” with more argumentative force. Levi might actually read the essay this time, maybe Michael’s non-Phenomenological causation gets Harman to change something fundamental. In any case, I don’t believe in black boxes, and presume that the more attention the essay gets the better the chance that Harman’s metaphysics will find the causal explanation that would justify its claims. I’m all for that. In the meantime, when Harman tells us that when a bug hits the windshield of a truck and has absolutely zero causal effect on the truck, an example of one way causation, we justifiably should laugh, and to do so charitably.

For those who would like to read the uncharitable approach I took towards the essay, these were my posts in evolution. Unlike some, I actually refer to the essay – in great detail – and attempt to grasp the specificity of its claims. 

My three overall points to Harman’s Theory of Causation are:

1. Insofar as it does work it is a problematic Orientalization of causal relations through a mediating exotic other (a cultural values insertion).

2. Insofar as it projects Husserlian Cartesian representationalism into every object relation it is one vast anthropomorphization and quite far from being “object oriented”.

3. Insofar as it fails to provide an account of the relations between posited elements it ceases even to be a theory of causation for it lacks the explanation itself.

How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?

The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Graham Harman’s “essence” contra DeLanda, à la Campanella

Vicarious Causation Diagrammed

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

Bourdieu on Blogging: Where to Find Symbolic Capital?

Living Beyond Your Means, On Credit

I don’t have time to summarize in depth, but some may be interested in this discussion over at the Latourian blog We Have Never Been Blogging: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. In our back and forth I quote from Bourdieu, from his Homo Academicus, a passage meant to describe the avenues of academic respect hoped to be achieved through “journalism”. The passage has of course interest for the kinds of Symbolic Capital some are, or have been trying to accumulate through blogging and other heterodox philosophical publishing. Worthy of note, Bourdieu uses an analogy of credit quite similar to one that I employed recently, although I did not have this passage or even Bourdieu in mind:

The heretical traditions of an institution based on a break with academic routine, and structurally inclined towards pedagogical and academic innovation, lead its members to become the most vigorous defenders of all the values of research, of openness to abroad and of academic modernity; but it is also true that they can encourage to the same extent work based on bogus, fictitious and verbal homage to these values, and that they can encourage members to give prestigious values for a minimum of real cost…The structural ambiguity of the position of the institution reinforces the dispositions of those who are attracted to this very ambiguity, by offering them the possibility and the freedom to live beyond their intellectual means, on credit, so to speak. To all the impatient claimants who, against the long production cycle and longterm investment…have chosen the short production cycle, whose ultimate example is the article in the daily or weekly press, and have given priority to marketing rather than production, journalism offers both a way out and a short cut. It enables them to overcome rapidly and cheaply the gap between aspirations and opportunities by ensuring them a minor form of the renown granted to great scholars and intellectuals; and it can even, at a certain stage in the evolution of the institution towards heteronomy, become a path to promotion within the institution itself.

There is even more coincidence for those interested in the local goings on in the blogged philosophical community, as Levi Bryant actually holds related parts of Bourdieu’s book as authentication for why he turned down a future at four year colleges and universities:

“Why did I choose a position at a two year school? “There”, I told Fink, “I will have academic freedom. I will be able to explore my interest in all styles of philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, physics, history, literature, and so on without being required to be anything. No one will care what or where I publish, so I will be free to do what I want.” In his characteristic manner he said “hmmmm!!!”, making a honking sound like one of the squash horns my grandfather used to make for me as a young boy. At the time I thought that was a rationalization. Often I still do. I took myself out of the prestige game, though I still yearn for it sometimes. But what I was doing ultimately, I think, was giving myself the freedom to speculate. What a relief it was to read Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus years later! Perhaps, above all, what that seventh chapter gave me was the authorization to speculate without bowing before the obsessional alter of “Continental rigor” [editorial note: defense]. However, the fact that I would undermine my own work in this way must indicate that here there’s still something unresolved. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel embarrassment whenever anyone wants to discuss the work or wants insight into it.” here

No longer did Levi have to bow down and kiss the rings of the “prestige game”. We might assume that much of the thinking that leads one to the freedoms of speculation, that draw one away from university pursuits, would also be integral to the pursuits of blogging where even more freedom and speculation can occur.

Monk-Mind and Speculative Thinking: Playing Seriously

But in another sense, if we are going to appreciate Bourdieu on this front, we should keep our eye upon all the Symbolic Capital accumulations (not just where and how they have been cashed in within the Institution), and see that Speculation is an interesting game, one that aims at kind of heretical prestige runaround, but also one that participates in the general game of the scholè, the reasoned preoccupations that only can occur within a hermeticism against practical, worldly pressures. The generation of the “scholastic point of view”:

I believe indeed that we should take Plato’s (1973) reflections on skhole very seriously and even his famous expression, so often commented upon, spoudaios paizein, “to play seriously.” The scholastic point of view of which Austin speaks cannot be separated from the scholastic situation, a socially instituted situation in which one can play seriously and take ludic things seriously. Homo scholasticus or homo academicus is someone who is paid to play seriously; placed outside the urgency of a practical situation and oblivious to the ends which are immanent in it, he or she earnestly busies herself with problems that serious people ignore-actively or passively. To produce practices or utterances that are context-free, one must dispose of time, of skhole and also have this disposition to play gratuitous games which is acquired and reinforced by situations of skhole such as the inclination and the ability to raise speculative problems for the sole pleasure of resolving them, and not because they are posed, often quite urgently, by the necessities of life, to treat language not as an instrument but as an object of contemplation or speculation.

Thus what philosophers, sociologists, historians, and all those whose profession it is to think and/or speak about the world have the most chance of overlooking are the social presuppositions that are inscribed in the scholastic point of view, what, to awaken philosophers from their slumber, I shall call by the name of scholastic doxa or, better, by the oxymoron of epistemic doxa: thinkers leave in a state of unthought (impense’, doxa) the presuppositions of their thought, that is, the social conditions of possibility of the scholastic point of view and the unconscious dispositions, productive of unconscious theses, which are acquired through an academic or scholastic experience, often inscribed in prolongation of an originary (bourgeois) experience of distance from the world and from the urgency of necessity.

“The Scholastic Point of View”

For those that follow Harman’s preoccupations, the forgotten Scholastics are principle among them. These now ill-respected thinkers for Harman form a whole portfolio of philosophical stock that can be purchased at bargain basement prices. Mix one of these thinkers into your paper and one suddenly produces a sense of weight and historical richness, we know. If you embrace one fully enough you’ve resurrected a lost soul locked in the catacombs of philosophical history, and have engendered a sense of personal originality, going against the tide of the Institution. But as well we might see that the connection between Scholasticism and Speculativism comes out of a certain kind of inherent idealization of what academic thinking is. Cocooned from practical concerns and pressures, the monk-mind is free to speculate and achieve a kind of non-worldly perspective. The isolation into institutions, and then, when run from, into blogged privacies is a participation in privilege to which the thought produce may very well be blind. There is real, Bourdieuian advisement that “the scholastic point of view” must be epistemologically leavened with an awareness of the structures which have produced it, and thus made aware of the unconscious investments that govern its own quietude.  If we may be monks, the conditions that allow our speculation are brought along with it, and if we really are pursuing, not just speculation for its pleasures of freedom and imagination, not just some kind of run-around of Institutional restraint, searching for cheaper prestige, but true ideas and ideas that inherently should matter to the world, the consequence of our ideas (politically, ethically, socially) must be embraced. In this way there is an epistemological mandate for our ontological speculation which immediately connects ethics to metaphysics. By way of example: Speculating that the world is essentially an Oriental condition of mediated cause as Harman does, should be related to the real world Orientalization which produces the cocoon of one’s own speculation, possibly to detrimental effect. To put it another way, the more our Symbolic Capital increases, especially in the field of philosophy, the more our ethical responsibility of our ideas to the world does as well.

Just as men out of prisons into holy sancturaries are fleeing, so these joyous men out from technical arts are leaping into Philosophy, as if those being most intricate would hit upon the little art of themselves. For in comparison with the other arts the honor of philosophy even though foresaken is more magnificent. This is the flight of the many unaccomplished by nature, who from the technical arts and even workmanship, their bodies have been mutilated and their souls envined and even crushed through the mechanical arts.

Plato, Republic [495d]

The Play of Fascist Objects: Object-Orientation and Latour: Updated

Adriano has a really articulate comment he put up under my posting on Latour’s implicit Fascism, Fascist Bindings In Latour: The Blinding Glory of Non-Human Agency. I have to comment on this later, but his essential Bourdieu vs. Latour political point is certainly a compelling one. Its has a double-edged blade when put to Harman and Levi because Harman declaratively wants to ignore any political complicity or consequence of his thinking (he embraces its Orientalism to no ill effect), while Levi who tries to preserve his social justice credentials and his hatred (yes hatred) for Neoliberalism wants to read Marx as essentially Latourian. For those interested in Levi’s self-proclaimed in-name political radicalism (and I am not, other than its implicit hypocrisy) Adriano’s pressing of a political, sociological critique is quite germane. For those interested in Harman’s implicit Capitalized logic (which I am), the question of Latour’s Neoliberalism which grounds Harman’s attempt to glue Husserlian objects to Heideggerian ones, Adriano’s point again presses home. The question arises, What is so sexy about objects?, if one could put it that way.

As Fuller writes in the article I cited, the very object-orientation of the concept of “translation” as a strong counterpart in our conception of desire:

” “Translation” was meant broadly to cover the process whereby one thing represents another so well that the voice of the represented is effectively silenced. Central to this process is the capacity of something to satisfy—and thereby erase—a desire. Callon and Latour exploited the Latin root of “interest” as interesse (“to be between”) to capture this capacity, which reverses the ordinary meaning of interest by implying that it is the presence of an object that creates (or perhaps reorients) a desire which the object then uniquely satisfies. That object is the mediator.”

When Latour’s very theory of objects as actors itself is seen in this light, as the “object that uniquely satisfies or fully orients our desire”, when our consciousness is defined by its objects, we of course lose the capacity to critique that desire itself, and the matrix of powers/desires it finds itself in. Is it not that the very verticality of ontology (aside from Harman’s fantasy of four-fold sensuality), the leverage point upon which ethics is built? And is not the very absence of an ethics from Latour, Harman and Levi, the mark of the failings of their ontological construction? In short, perhaps….where is Bourdieu?

Here is Adriano’s comment:

Well yeah, as we have coincide before: the foundational imposture that Latour retains is the source of the problem. But its also worth to mention that neither Harman nor Levi bothered themselves to take Latour`s work critically. Like i have said elsewhere, Latour´s work departures from a very and detailed systematic anti-bourdieusian imposture, say like ‘phantomizing’ Bourdieu´s constructive/conceptual preoccupations. So from this reactive foundation he is doing a cinical counterargumentation of all the work done by Bourdieu, and he keeps on feeding his stands by doing that.

Its seems that the position that Latour is occupying between the philosophical and the sociological fields is one of an ideologue who denies the relation that social research is meant to have in respect with other fields of knowledge, and this, in order to presume and to exalt the illusion of an absolute autonomy of the scientific field. But as he does this cynically, those who follow his work without any critical margins are meant to fall into a blinded spot in the exercise of their own practice, while they reproduce it as a naturalized scholastic point of view which gives a ‘fair’ sense of justification to their objectual laboratory. This is what i was trying to say to Nick the other day.

So the problem is also the lack of interest in adapting their work into the social research procedures: neither Harman or Levi are much worried to do this in the right way so to contemplate and conceive other critical angles regarding to what is known about the latourian assertions.They don`t do this because it would imply to realize how urgent is it for their sake to drop out a big part of what sustains their work. For instance, as a bourdieusian, its seems to me that they had never triangulate Latour`s work with Bourdieu`s, not even when there is a clear critical struggle underlined between these two sociologues. So they took an unquestioned part on Latour`s favor without knowing the specific and confronted vis a vis details of this very particular struggle, and obviously without getting to know closer the bourdieusian frame of work.

The results are evident: blinded spots within their practice that are reproduced through their pragmatic academic and granted commodities. This also means that they may not be aware how they are reproducing specific ideological interests that also might point out to their own social class and habitus) and this, in despite their good intellectual and ontological will. An object-oriented-naivety that ends to be self-oriented while they insist to defend it in they mean to fiercely embrace it.

UPDATED: For those interested in the Levi opera, I include here a link to a thorough-going response Adriano had to Levi’s separation of ontology from politics, which Levi in his usual fashion of refusing to publish critical objections to his position, deleted, in an effort to shape the impression that his position is both achieved through some kind of dialogic with all objections, and the production of a kind of consensus: here. He of course also has deleted any number of similiar critical questionings of his concepts by me, as well.  A discussion of these issues follows in the comments section below.

Harman’s Speculative Bubble: The Runaway Capitalism of OOP

Philosophical Gambling: Let’s Make a Bubble

The Velvet Howler made a brilliant, off-the cuff diagnosis of Graham Harman’s so-called Object-Oriented Philosophy over in a Perverse Egalitarianism thread that started out light but has gotten more substance. It is really worth repeating for it pulls Harman metaphysical speculation into the general sphere of important societal trends and valuations, and opens the question of how we should do philosophy, and if our production of philosophy mirrors our production of other commercial commodities. Bryan was responding to Graham’s often stated thought that philosophy had to be more in the gambling game, that one had to take more metaphysical risks, a sentiment that I might applaud, but then I also ask: Is it gambling if nothing is at risk? or, What does it mean to gamble without real money? Upon this Bryan made a wonderful analogy between Harman’s gambler metaphor fueled by a “One Great Idea” approach to philosophy, finding it worth noting that the entire SR/OOP franchise mimicked the speculative bubble thinking that drives markets towards their collapse:

…There is undoubtedly a “bad” kind of speculation, which evokes the “spec”/”speculare” we find in political economy: risk taking for the sake of profit. Certain forms of speculative behavior, it seems to me, cannot be separated from their metaphysical counterpart. Here I think Harman’s thought becomes something of a mirror of contemporary American attitudes towards finance: his speculative gambling in search of that “one great idea” inevitably leads to the construction of a metaphysical “bubble” (his defense and support of panpsychism I read as a symptom of this) built on unsure ground and upon the continual deferral of the debt it accumulates. In that sense, OOP can be read, perhaps a bit too reductively for my tastes, but nevertheless as a form of packaged, repackaged, and traded collateralized debt obligations, which will inevitably collapse once the basis is revealed to have been nothing but a “toxic asset”, a transcendental illusion, a house of cards.

This was particular to my own experience when I read Harman’s theory of causation. While stimulative of thought, the more I took it seriously the more disappointing it became. As I heard audio lectures that followed my reading of his theory it seemed that indeed there was a kind of “debt” of explanation or coherence that Harman simply pushed into the future, a kind of doubling down into the next book (Latour) and a refinancing that went along with a method of repackaging. First his philosophy was part of a whole movement called “Spectulative Realism” (composed of thinkers who agree upon almost nothing), then it became “OOP” and had even spawned its own “splinter group” called OOO (insuring it the position of an imagined orthodoxy). One cannot help but feel with some force that this is running parallel to the dividend markets that simply cut and repackaged “risk” under new names creating a bubble of excitement which simply fed upon itself. Consider Levi’s recent enthusiasm over a new Graham Harman diagram, brought on by a general love of diagrams, which by virtue of simply being diagrams Levi feels get at a “bit” of the “real”:

Harman provides a brief commentary on how he’s thinking about his diagrams here. I’ll have to think through this more, but my initial impression is that this is really exciting stuff. I confess that his theory of vicarious causation and his analysis of the four-fold are the aspects of his ontology that have left me most scratching my head. [found here]

Nevermind that Harman’s theories have gotten Levi scratching his head (which means he doesn’t understand them or find them convincing), and never mind that before seeing this diagram Levi has linked his new OOO (brand) to this head-scratching OOP, this new diagram is “really exciting stuff”(!) Hey, I might actually understand what I’ve been supporting. Speculative bubble. Is this not just the kind of thing that was done in financial markets when repackaged debt was then rated as “A” level and put into assemblages of investment? Harman’s theory made no sense, but this diagram of it is really exciting, let’s buy some (and I say this as a devote diagrammist).

Add to this speculative excitement several other franchising maneuvers, the announced start of a “peer reviewed” OOO journal (which some people have speculated is only another “blog”) and even an All-American OOO conference and we really have something happening. These packaging movements meet squarely it seems with Harman’s own Great Idea concept of philosophical significance, the thinking that all the Great Philosophers were really exaggerators that some how fooled the public long enough to get their ideas off the ground. Once enough people “buy into” the intial debt of explanation it is passed off onto the whole group, the bad morgage is cut into tiny Madoff pieces and distributed everywhere. Philosophy as Ponzi scheme. It brings to mind Harman’s notion of a market place of ideas, and how he once stonewalled any attempts to find correspondences between Spinoza’s thinking and his own. “Spinoza’s stock…” he told me, “is simply over valued right now” as if he were a financial advisor and I should be looking into something to invest in. What does this mean, Spinoza’s stock is over-valued? Harman was not looking so much for the kind of discussions that found correspondences in cross-fertilization, as those that pushed the mercantile futures of his own one Great Idea, the “get rich quick” “buy stock low” concept of philosophical investment. One cannot help but feel that Bryan over at Velvet Howler really has struck at the Capitalist, all-American cord of the OOP movement and franchise. One must speculate because speculation (combined with constant repackaging and associative re-valuation) differs the debt of philosophical explanation. It allows one’s theory to proliferate in the kind of meme-like method that Levi finds so appealing.

Paying the Philosophical Debt?

The more significant questions might be, how is this different than just a bunch of fellows getting together that like the ideas of each other, and then selling/convincing others that the very idea of their group is appealing, pulling resources together? And how are we to weigh this organizational property against the very ethic that Bryan calls our attention to, a kind of All-American speculative bubble wherein the Debt of explanation or justification is passed along into greater and more diverse assemblages of investment? Do the memes of philosophy have to stand for anything? Does Graham Harman actually have to a coherent Theory of Causation and not just the name of a Theory of Causation (called “Vicarious Causation”)? Do those who align themselves with OOP and become franchised to it actually have to understand and become convinced of OOP itself? Is there a harm,  a social harm, in replicating the logic of Capitalist speculative bubble-making within the productive means of philosophy?

I suspect that the methods of packaging and Debt deferral are detrimental to both philosophy and social being, and that (in some tension to ethical aims) meme-like profusion might be essential to internet blogged philosophy. One wants a catchy name (or name of a principle or fallacy), and an easy to understand enemy, and then a loose cadre of alliances, maybe even a logo like The Brights wield. But also serious questions about the value of thought produced through such a speculative means do remain, a sense that yes, debt cannot simply be passed down into some other form without us losing the sense that philosophy is actually being done. How is it that so much philosophical activity has organized itself around OOP when no one, even the most aligned, actually find the theory coherent or convincing? And does it matter? And as a meme-type shouldn’t the value of its ideas (the implication of what they say about and reinforce about us and the world), and it means of reproduction, fall under criticism? I think that these are very important questions for those who consider the ethical value of internet philosophical idea sharing, especially amid its networking powers. Both the mode and the concept of our visions play at large in the world, and it is the philosophical check of criticism that often keeps the spread of ideas from simply becoming the spread of memes. 

As Bryan responds in the thread to a briefer summation of the above:

“…I think in some way the perspective of how Harman’s speculative metaphysics mirrors contemporary political economy also fits nicely with your argument you made over at Frames /sing, about how, in his very attempt to decenter and remove the human from the privileged point of access for any “first philosophy,” Harman actually naturalizes the human by smuggling it through the backdoor, vis-a-vis the Cartesian withdrawal-into-self through universal doubt (and its Husserlian extension)-cum-“objects withdrawing into themselves.”

* This general topic has bearing upon Carl’s recent thoughts on the potentiating relationship between Gramsci and blogging over at Dead Voles.

* For those who don’t want to wade through the chaotic comments section of the original thread, you might enjoy reading Bryan at Velvet Howler’s excellent summation of his ideas and intutions: here.

The Fall of Larval Subjects: Bloom and Rose

 

It seems it has been a long time coming. People have found Levi Bryant’s voluminous and often creative postings as inspiration for what is possible in the blog-form of thoughtful, internet expression, but it seems one-by-one the petals have fallen- off the rose, within to find a philosophical subject who has pressed himself as close as possible to what is less than appealing about blogged, quick-fire thinking processes. Others still maintain a favorable view, but for me his unadmitted self-contradictions, pronounced declarations, penchant for inventing term after term, principles upon fallacies, and lastly his brittle treatment of those that disagree with him, left me with the feeling of someone who wanted to “play” the philosopher, or at least the philosophy professor.

Beyond the recent Grey Vampire jaunt into hatreds, now it seems that in his largess Levi has taken on in a rather but perhaps typically absurd way Reid over at Planomenology, who made the mistake of actually questioning the political worth of a non-normative ontological world, sheerly conceived of as equally real objects. The sad thing seems to be that Reid once took his inspiration from Levi, only to find himself (and his ideas) wildly characterized in typical Levi Bryant over-stretch and obfuscation. As Reid writes opening up in response Projective Indignity, where he point by point takes apart each of Bryant’s strategies of evasion and general intimidation:

Larval Subjects was one of my favorite blogs, and one of the major reasons I started doing this in the first place. He had significant influence on my development in philosophy, leading me to the controversial, but I still think fundamentally sound belief that Deleuze and Guattari can be understood as continuing the work of Lacan, not breaking with it. It was through him that I first heard about Badiou, speculative realism, non-philosophy, and so on. His impact has been very important to me.

Now Levi has decided to publish a post whose tone and tenor would be easily at home on the Fox News Channel. I’m tempted to ignore this nonsense altogether…but I am really quite uncomfortable with having myself so dramatically misrepresented on such a popular blog. So I suppose I’ll have to point out, one by one, the inaccuracies littering his post – Media Matters style. I doubt this will have any effect on his end, and will likely serve only to escalate the tide of bullshit, but I’ll come to that road when I cross it

I don’t always agree with Reid, but even when in debate he seemed like the very best of blogged thought: local, thoughtful, inspired, playing none of the professorial games of bluffery and bullying that Levi (and Graham) seem to like to employ. Mikhail was first on this recent display of philosophical spearing, here, but the reason I find it worth posting about is that aside from those that consider themselves citadeled against ignorant Internet masses, I do think philosophical thinking via internet discussion a “community” process and when general community standards are violated, it is a responsibility of community to at least raise the events to a level of notice.

Of course there are all kinds of discourse on the Internet, but when folks which to express themselves in something of a high-brow standard, aiming at being taken philosophically (and I am not even sure that I am one of those, I just post what is interesting to me), its best to keep them to the standards that they claim to raise.

Levi has, at least in my view busied himself alienating his questioners over time such that it probably makes the most sense for him to do away with the comments section of his blog altogether (something I have suggested for a long time), as his recent allies K-punk and Harman have done.  This is difficult for Levi because he ever wants to give the impression that his ideas come out of dialogue, as rational, necessary conclusions which any reasonable person could not help but embrace. He is ever mystified when others don’t agree with him (they must be either dull witted or unread). Personally I do not find megaphone broadcasts very interesting, and I only turn to Levi’s posts when some other person references them (and even less so for Harman and K-punk). It just seems that just as commerce seems to creep into internet networks (with real books being written in these contexts), the selfish, scrabbling identities that commodification seems to at its worst brings out, expresses itself with REAL objectifying power.

Addendum: Here Levi responds to Reid apologizing for his tone, but then somewhat in self-excuse claims that though in the wrong because he was “provoked” by Reid. Somehow it is was Reid’s fault:

While my rhetoric was way out of line and over the top, I do not think it was unprovoked given that associating someone with neoliberalism is much like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.

Levi feels that he has been called the equivalent of a “Nazi” by being associated with neoliberalism though Reid’s assessement that the equalization of objects serves only as a weak and facile democraticization. (I thought philosophers were supposed to specialize in distinctions, but he cannot tell the difference between being associated with neoliberalism, and being CALLED a Nazi.) No doubt this imagined “Nazi” smear conducted by Reid’s rather reasoned arguments (in which I detect not much smearing) touches off the feeling that Levi has been subject to something of this kind of language:

[I hate ] second, the creatures of ressentiment who seem to delight in tearing others down, in finding ways to torture them, who have orgies of hate together when they get ignored seeing themselves as victims rather than being the assholes that they are. Racists, jilted white men, insecure nationalists, misogynists and homophobes, trolls, Christianists and religious zealots of all sorts that are convinced they’re victims, gossips, etc., etc., etc.

Of course this is a quote from Levi, and not Reid. This  really isn’t the way that Reid expresses himself. Its Levi, talking as usual to himself

But it’s not just that Levi was provoked, or as he put it, feeling that he had been “kicked in the stomach”. It’s also the case for Levi that his bullying of Reid (as a professor of philosophy unto a graduate student, and a popular bloggist to a wee bloggist), bullying he confesses, is also the case of him merely not treating him “like a puppy”. Levi, despite the apology was simply being all man about it with Reid. He was just giving Reid a friendly hockey check back on the ice.

I think it is strange to suggest that somehow because of his age or station as a graduate student he is supposed to be treated with kid gloves or patted on the head like a puppy when, to use a hockey metaphor, he himself “checks” hard in public.

For anyone who read Reid’s analysis of Levi’s exchange, we know that this was not the case at all. Its good of course to hear Levi apologize but those who know him know that this is pretty much par for the course: I was completely wrong, I’m very sorry, except for the fact that I was provoked and I out of respect to him refused to treat Reid as a puppy, again I repeat I was completely wrong.

Spinoza’s Substance Stripped Bare

Duchamps The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23)

(above Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even,” 1913 -23)

Just a Blob of nothing, an intellectual Sleight of Hand…?

Levi, over at Larval Subjects has a well-worded summation of the possible difficulties and assumptions contained in Spinoza’s Proposition 5 (Ethics, part I: ) “Proposition Five: Questions of Individuation”, in particular how they reflect upon just what Individation is. He seems to feel that if one accepts this proposition (and its referenced assumptions) one is by the force of logic to accept a great deal of what follows in Spinoza’s philosophy. So he sees this as something of a keystone. If one can effectively challenge it, the entire edifice of Spinoza thinking is threatened to collapse. I can’t say that I agree with this because I read the rationalistic cohension of Spinoza’s Ethics a little differently than most, but he does raise interesting points.

I commented extensively on the posting (much in greater detail than I expected), so it seemed best to re-present the issues here, with a bit more quoted material. I think it worthwhile to dig into this proposition as Levi has given us the lead to do, but in the end I am not sure as to the final spear point of his objection.

First off, let’s give the proposition, and then I’ll post the context of my comments:

In rerum natura non possunt dari duae aut plures substantiae euisdem naturae sive attributi.

In the nature of things they are not able to be granted two or multiple substances of the same nature or attribute.

I provide the Latin and literal translation so one can see the lexical doubling that Spinoza performing, as well as the “of things” individuation which shows the proposition to be an explanation of things we already perceive as distinction, but Curley translates a bit less literally and much more fluidly,

In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.

The reason for this that Spinoza puts forth is that it is the attribute itself that tells us exactly what a thing is, its essence. It is the attribute which grounds all our other attributve properties. If there were multiple substances which had the same attribute (the same conceptual manner of distinction), there remains no specific additional qualification which distinguishes them from each other. I will reference and cite Della Rocca’s treatment below, for his presentation is a good clean exposition. And it is his argument I will follow. What Spinoza has in mind here is Descartes’ somewhat unspecified assertion that there actually are two kinds of Substance, the Aristotlelian kind of individual things which are dependent upon other things for their existence, and then the soon-to-be Spinozist kind, the kind that is self-caused. The move that Spinoza is making here is turning against the notion that it is Attributes themselves that distinguish things as individual kinds, but rather it is modal expressions alone. Descartes’ two kinds of Substance simply can’t be rationally supported. Unfortunately for the Christian, this leaves of of creation to be literally part of God. There is no gap between God and the world. Once we remove the unjustified kind of Substance inherited from Aristotle, we are just left with an ultimate and immanent ground.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Anyways, that is where Spinoza is going. But what Levi objects to, after a thorough engagment with the problems with the argument is that there seems to be a kind of non-sensicalness of Substance itself, the way that if we say that an object in the world (and he uses his friend Melanie), is stripped of all her qualities, we really are left with nothing at all. What would remain under Spinoza’s description, is somehow blob-like and indistinct. Spinoza has provided us with a concept that seems to do nothing. Here is a quote from Levi’s post, and my consideration that follows:

Levi: ” Suppose I strip my friend Melanie of all her affections or qualities. In striving to think Melanie as a substance, I ignore all of her physical properties, her quirks of thought, her personal history, her mannerisms, her love of okra, etc., so as to think this hypothetical “Melanie-substance” in and through herself. What am I left with at the end of this exercise? Absolutely nothing!. In other words, a substance subtracted from all of its affections turns out to be nothing but a formless void.”

Kvond:…I’m not sure that I follow exactly your objection here. The complaint that you make as to the blobness of Substance is actually very close to the one that Descartes made against Medieval Aristotelian “Prime Matter”, a completely non-quality “stuff” which is suppose to inertly just be there as a support for inhering form and qualities. As Della Rocca tells it, it was this seeming superfluousness of Prime Matter that got Descartes to just do away with it. Instead, a Substance simply had a form, was defined by its form, which in Descartes was its Principal Attribute.

[inserted from Della Rocca’s Spinoza  a selection which lays out Descartes’ thinking on Substance and attribute in terms of prime matter]:

But why must all the properties of a substance be subsumed under a fundamental feature? Why can’t there be a feature of substance that does not presuppose the principle attribute of the substance, but is nonetheless a feature of that substance? Thus, for example, why can’t an extended substance also having some thinking features, features that cannot be understood through extension? Descartes does not, as far as I know, explicitly address this question, but its clear what his answer would be: there would be no good account what makes this free-floating thinking feature a feature of this extended substance. What would bind this thinking feature to this extended substance? For Descartes, the conceptual connection provided by an attribute furnishes the link to make a particular property of a given substance. Without the link afforded by an attribute, we cannot see a property as belonging to a substance. In other words, Descartes insists that there be this over-arching feature because otherwise there would be no explanation of why a given feature is a feature of a particular substance.

Because the principle attribute helps us to understand all the properties of a substance, it tells us what kind of thing the substance is, what its essence is. And for this reason, purely formal features of a substance do not count as attributes in this sense. Each substance has features, let us say, of existing and being powerful to some degree. But exitence and power are not principal attributes for Descartes. This is because these features do not tell us what kind of thing a substance is and do not tell us what kinds of more particular properties it has.

In this way we can see that on Descartes ontology of substance and attribute, substances are explanatory engines. Each substance has a nature that can be articulated or explained in terms of its principal attribute, and this principal attribute in turn articulates or explains all the properties of the substance. Thus for Descartes each substance is fully conceivable. Everything about a substance must be capable of being understood and what it is understood in terms of is its principal attribute.

This is, of course, a rationalist dimension of Descarte’s ontology, and we can appreciate this dimension by contrasting Descartes’s view with a broadly Aristotelian account of substance. On the Aristotelian account (or at least on the Aristotelian account as it is developed by medieval philosophers such as Aquinas), a corporeal substance consists of prime matter and a substantial form. The substantial form, is in some ways, like a Cartesian principal attribute: it tells us the nature of a substance and the kinds of properties it can have. But the form is not the only constituent of substance. The substantial form must somehow inhere in the subject and this subject is prime matter, a featureless, bare subject for a substantial form. The prime matter is a thing is some sense, but, precisely because it is featureless, it cannot be articulated or explained. Literally, prime matter is no “kind” of thing, and precisely for this reason Descartes rejects the notion as unintelligible (see CM I 91, 92/AT XI 33, 35). Marleen Rozemond sums up the view here nicely:

“Since Descartes eliminates prime matter from the hylomorphic conception of corporeal substance, the result in Aristotelian terms is that a substance just consists in a substantial form. In Descartes own terms, the result is that substance just consists in a principal attribute” (Spinoza, 2008; 38)

Prime Matter, Begone!

[continuing my response] But as Prime Matter was done away with because it lacked explanatory value, we have to ask the same of Spinoza’s overriding Substance itself. If we strip Melanie of all her qualities are we left with Prime Matter, or with Substance, and what would be the difference?

There are a few ways to proceed. As you know, Substance is what it is because it is the only thing that is its own cause, by virtue of nothing lying “outside” of it (I don’t know if you accept this, but it is fundamental to answering the question). As such, it is the only thing which has existence in its very nature (it does not depend on something other than itself to exist), it must, logically and ontologically exist. So, in a certain sense, the question being asked has something of a non-sequitor in it. Because Substance “exists and acts” through its modal determinations, asking what Melanie is (if merely Substance) without her modal determinations, in a way does not follow. In Spinoza’s universe, Melanie must have certain modal properties, given the state of the rest of the universe, which has determined her to be a certain way.

Now there is a kind of aporia we run into here, for in Spinoza’s framework it is not entirely clear why Melanie when she is five years old and has a cool-aid stain on her mouth, and Melanie when she is 33 and has a broken arm, is the very same thing (has the same essence). It is perfectly conceivable that from moment to moment or stage to stage, there are different essences expressing themselves. It seems that only Spinoza’s definition of a body as a specific ratio of motion in communication between parts that restricts this possibility. And because this “ratio” is unspecified and really unidentifiable, this is a rather tenuous barrier. So there is a very real sense in which Spinoza’s depiction can be read as a kind of Occasionalism.

But generally, when thinking about Melanie, sub specie aeternitatis, what she is in or out of existence, this is a modal “essence”, a certain beingness which depends upon a provisional modal interaction with other modal essences, each bringing each other into being in a kind of co-dependent fashion, what Gatens and Lloyd term “horizontally”.

Is this very close to the blob of Prime Matter? It doesn’t seem so. Because Substance itself is an expressional thing, a thing which by its very nature determines itself to exist, if you do the thought experiment and ask what any one modal expression is without its current state of modal expressiveness, one is left with the explanatory ground of Substance, its very capacity to press forward in existence and acts.

Indistinguishable Melanie

Now is this a bit of a slight of hand? Has Spinoza just made up a buried capacity of a hypothetical under- or over- thing? Perhaps one can say that. But what he has in mind (and one cannot undervalue this), is that things must have an explanatory context for what they are. If you are going to say something like:

“Sure, you tell me that Gravity is some mysterious force which causes this apple to fall with such and such a rate at such and such at time, but what then is this apple-event if stripped of all its qualities, its rate and timing?…It is just a blob of a force called Gravity”

If you take away what is being explained, and then ask what good is the explanation, one might really be dissatisfied with the answer. So in answer to what Melanie is in or out of existence requires that we define what she is in existence. And for Spinoza this answer is a conatus, a striving. She is pure striving (expressed in human beings as either appetite or desire). That is her existential essence. It is the diagnosis of this striving that gives weight to Spinoza’s view of Substance as explanatory. What is Melanie’s striving, her conatus, stripped of all the particular “strivings for”? It is the existential strivings of Substance itself. But there is no blobness to it, for the strivings of Substance must be particularized, that is expressed in determined modal forms. Substance does not collapse on itself, or meld into one great sea of potentiality. It is always particularized in concrete, existential manifestation.

You [Levi] bring this up when you conclude:

[Levi writing]:”However, again, we run into the same problem: Is an attribute such as extension thinkable independent of all spatial determinations (modes)? Again, the thought of space without any spatial things turns out to be the thought of nothing or the absence of all determination. The conclusion then would be that the idea of an affectionless substance- such as Spinoza evokes in 1p5 -is an incoherent idea that functions as a sleight of hand, rather than a genuine concept.”

But seem to have inverted the reasoning. It is precisely because one cannot conceive of space without its spatial determinations that Substance must be an expressive grounds of spatial things, in the Attribute of Extension. It is precisely that there are spatial things, and that they can only be understood fully by understanding their cause, that Substance is what it is. It seems that you have reversed the Explanans and the Explanandum, and argued that the Explanans is meaningless without the Explanandum, but it the requirement of the Explanans due to the existence of the Explanandum [the nature of things], that grants it its coherence. It is the very fact of its explanatory nature that Substance logically must express itself in the concrete things that it is explaining, that gives the argument its force.

Michael Della Rocca, Chair of Philosophy at Yale

Michael Della Rocca, Professor of Philosophy at Yale

To end I would like to reprint a lengthy selection from Della Rocca’s book that deals particularly with 1p5 so as to give immediate context to my points, but also to provide a place of comparison for much of the same ground covered by Levi’s also worthwhile summation. At the very least it will give those unfamiliar with Spinoza’s argument one more clear presentation of the issues at hand in the notions of Substance, Attribute and mode, and their possible objections. Its interesting, but when I first got Della Rocca’s book I was a bit disappointed and distracted from it. It possessed none of the verve of his first book, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (1996): But as I have turned to it in reference, it really has grown on me. In its quietude one can feel the delicate care of Della Rocca’s mind as he weighs the meanings and implications of Spinoza’s assertions, and is invited to consider them as he does.

Thus let’s take 1p5 first: “In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.” To prove this proposition, Spinoza considers what is required in order to individuate two substances, i.e. what is required in order to explain their non-identity. For Spinoza, the distinctness between two distinct things must be explained by some difference between them, some difference in their properties. In the case of the individuation of substances, this amounts to the claim that they must be individuated via a difference either in their attributes or in their modes. Thus Spinoza says in 1p4d:

“Two or more distinct things are distinguished from one another, either by a difference in the attributes of the substances or by a difference in their affections.”

In 1p5d, he makes clear that such a difference in properties is needed for two things to be “conceived to be” – i.e. explained to be – “distinguished from one another.”

In insisting on some difference in properties between two things, Spinoza endorses the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. This is a principle – more often associated with Leibniz that with Spinoza – that if a and b are indiscernible, i.e. if a and b have all the same properties, then a is identical to b. One can see that this principle turns on the notion of explaining non-identity and, as such, one can see its roots in the PSR [Principle of Sufficient Reason]. Non-identities, by the PSR, require explanation, and the way to explain non-identity is to appeal to some difference in properties.

Thus two substances could be individuated either by a difference in their attrributes or in their modes. Spinoza dismisses right away any differentiation of substances in terms of their attributes because he says we are considering whether two substances can share an attribute. Thus a case in which substances might have different attributes might seem irrelevant to the case at hand. However, as we will see in a moment, this dismissal may be too hasty. Spinoza then considers whether they can be distinguished by their modes. Spinoza eliminates this possibility as well, offering the following argument.

Since a substance is prior to its modes (by 1p1), we are entitled, and indeed obligated, to put the modes to the side when we take up the matter of individuating substances. Thus, with the modes to one side and with the attributes already eliminated as individuators, it turns out that there are no legitimate grounds for individuating substances with the same attribute, for explaining why they are distinct. Thus, since substances with the same attribute cannot legitimately be individuated, there cannot be any sharing of attributes.

Obviously this argument turns crucially on the claim that we should put the modes to one side. But what justifies this claim? Spinoza appeals here to the notion of priority introduced in 1p1. What exactly does this priority amount to? For Spinoza, as well as Descartes, it is a conceptual priority. One can have the idea of a substance without having ideas of its modes.

Thus, we can see why Descartes would have a problem individuatin, say, two extended substances. All Descartes could appeal to in order to individuate the substances is the modes, but given Descartes’ own explanatory notion of substance, according to which all of a substance’s modes are explained through its attributes, such an appeal is illegitimate.

Of course Descartes might at this point simply give up the claim that the non-identity of substance is explicable. Fair enough. After all, Descartes does not explicitly assert the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. But Descartes’s rejection of prime matter is in the spirit of such a principle. For Descartes, there is no way to articulate what prime matter is precisely because it has no qualities. In the same way, there is no way to articulate what the non-identity of a and b consists in because no qualities are available to do the job of individuation. Thus, even on his own terms, Descartes should feel the force of this Spinozistic argument that rules out a multiplicity of substances sharing an attribute.

But even if substances that share an attribute are not individuated by their modes, perhaps such substances are individuated by attributes they do not share. Spinoza does allow, after all, that a substance can have more than one attribute. So why can’t we have the following scenario: substance 1 has attributes X and Y and substance 2 has attributes Y and Z. On this scenario, while the two substances share an attribute (i.e. Y) they differ with regard to other attributes and can thus be individuated after all. So perhaps then, contrary to 1p5, there can be some sharing of attributes by different substances. This objection was first raised by Leibniz, one of the most acute readers of Spinoza.

This objection is harder to answer than the charge that substances that share an attribute can be individuated by their modes, but Spinoza clearly has the resources to handle this objection too. To see why, let’s assume that Leibniz’s scenario is possible. If so, then attribute Y would not enable us to pick out or conceive of one substance in particular. The thought “the substance with attribute Y” would not be a thought of one substance in particular, and thus attribute Y would not by itself enable us conceive of any particular substance. For Spinoza, such a result would contradict the clause in the definition of attribute according to which each attribute constitutes the essence of substance. As Spinoza says in 1p10s, a claim that he clearly sees as following form the definition of attribute, “each [attribute of a substance] expresses the reality or being of substance.” So for Spinoza, if a substance has more than one attribute, each attribute by itself must enable us to conceive of the substance, and this can by the case only if each attribute that a substance has is unique to that substance. Thus Leibniz’s scenario is ruled out (46-48)